The Naval Aviation Museum officially opened its doors on June 8, 1963, with a ceremony that included performances by the Blue Angels and the Navy's Chuting Stars parachute team, and attendance by a host of dignitaries as well as the general public. The modest structure included limited display space, with the Smithsonian National Air Museum [later renamed National Air and Space Museum] loaning aircraft and aircraft models for display. The early development of the museum coincided with the beginning of the space race and the launching of America's first astronauts into space and thus one of the most popular of the museum's first exhibits was the Mercury space capsule in which Lieutenant Commander M. Scott Carpenter had completed three orbits of the Earth during America's fourth manned space mission on May 24, 1962. Displayed along with it was the first artifact formally donated to the museum, one that traveled farthest to get to Pensacola, literally to the stars and back.
It came in the form of the Navy wings of gold worn by Carpenter on his orbital flight, which he personally presented to Vice Admiral Fitzhugh Lee, the Chief of Naval Air Training, and Rear Admiral Magruder H. Tuttle, the Chief of Naval Air Basic Training and the prime mover in establishing the museum, during a visit to NAS Pensacola following his mission. Though authorized by the Secretary of the Navy, the museum was nearly a year away from opening its doors when Tuttle wrote Carpenter in July 1962. "This is the first contribution to be officially accepted for the Museum and certainly a most fitting item of historical significance." To Tuttle's letter, the astronaut responded, "I consider it a great honor to have been part of its [the Museum's] beginnings."
Assigned accession number 1962.001.001, Carpenter's wings of gold laid the foundation for a collection that now includes thousands of objects. They even made a return to space during a 1994 mission on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour, carried aloft by members of the crew, which included two naval aviators [Mission Commander Michael A. Baker and Pilot Terrence W. Wilcutt] and a naval flight officer, Mission Specialist Daniel Bursch.